Owls are one of the oldest species of vertebrate animal in existence, fossils have been found dating back 60 million years, showing the bird to have changed very little in that time.
Throughout the history of mankind, the owl has featured significantly in mythology & folklore. Owls are one of the few birds that have been found in prehistoric cave paintings. Owls have been both revered & feared throughout many civilisations from ancient to more recent times.
In ancient Greece, owls were often seen as a symbol of good fortune. The idea of the 'wise old owl' may have come into being from the association of the Little Owl with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athene.
In contrast, the Romans saw owls as omens of impending disaster. Hearing the hoot of an owl indicated an imminent death, it is thought that the deaths of many famous Romans was predicted by the hoot of an owl, including Julius Caesar, Augustus & Agrippa. While the Greeks believed that sight of an owl predicted victory for their armies, the Romans saw it as a sign of defeat. They believed that a dream of an owl could be an omen of shipwreck for sailors & of being robbed. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, it was believed that the offending owl should be killed & nailed to the door of the affected house.
Beliefs on owls varied between ancient American Indian tribes. Some tribes viewed owls as harbingers of sickness & death. Other tribes saw them as protective spirits, others believed them to be the souls of living or recently departed people & should be treated with respect. Some tribes even saw the owls as earthly incarnations of their gods, the Hopis believed the Burrowing Owl to be their god of the dead. The Inuit explain the flat face & short beak of owls, in the story of a beautiful young girl who was magically changed into an owl with a long beak, as an owl, she became frightened & flew into the wall of her house & flattened her face & beak. Some tribes referred to death as "crossing the owls bridge".
Some people believed that owls were particular bad to children, in Malaya it was believed that owls ate new-born babies, the Swahili believed that owls brought sickness to children, in Arabia it was believed that owls were evil spirits that carried children off in the night.
Some people believed that owls had magic powers, in Arabia it was thought that each female Owl laid two eggs - one with the power to make hair fall out, the other with the power to restore it. In Algeria, it was believed that if the right eye of an Eagle Owl was placed in the hand of a sleeping woman, that she would tell everything you wanted to know (now that is stretching the imagination too far).
British beliefs about owls include the Welsh belief that if a owl is heard amongst houses then an unmarried girl has lost her virginity. Another Welsh belief is that if a pregnant woman hears an owl, her child will be blessed. In Yorkshire owl broth is believed to cure whooping cough, amongst other things (see entries for Barn Owl & Little Owl). Because of its ability to turns its head so far & its habit of watching things intently, it was believed that you could get an owl to effectively wring its own neck by walking in circles around it.
While there are many cultures that believe the owl to be bad (in Cameroon, it has no name, it is only referred to as "the bird that makes you afraid"), there are others that believe owls to be good. In Babylon, owl amulets were used to protect pregnant women. In the Lorraine region of France, owls are believed to help spinsters find husbands. In Romania, it is said that the souls of repentant sinners fly to heaven as Snowy Owls.
In India 'food' made from owls was believed to have many medicinal properties curing seizures in children (owl eye broth) & rheumatism (owl meat). Eating owl eyes was believed to enable a person to see in the dark, while owl meat was believed to be an aphrodisiac. There were also beliefs about events predicted by the number of owl hoots (similar to seeing numbers of magpies in this country) :
It is believed that over 1000 owls, including the endangered Brown Fish Owl (Ketupa zeylonensis), are killed very year during Diwali by black magicians in the hope of warding off bad luck & gaining magical powers. This is despite the fact that owls are identified with the goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, in whose honour the celebration is held (when she travels alone, without Vishnu, she travels on an owl - when she travels with Vishnu they travel on the eagle Garuda). Amulets made from the bones, beaks & talons of owls are in great demand.
Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) is one of the most important gods of the native Ainu people of Hokkaidu, in Japan. It is called "kotan kor kamuy", which means the "god of the village" or "god who defends the village".
In France owls were also considered with great esteem, with several named as dukes, for example the European Eagle Owl was called Hibou Grand-Duc & the long-eared owl was called Hibou Moyen-Duc. This probably stemmed from the custom during the middle ages that nobles below the rank of a duke could not wear a plume of feathers, hence the 'eared' owls must be of rank of a duke. Somewhere along the way though, this attitude changed, with the European Eagle Owl being classified as vermin until the late 1960's.
In China, the popular name for owls, especially "eared" owls, is "cat-eared hawk".
One of the Chinese names for owls is "xiao", these owls have the associated legend of being evil birds that ate their own mothers. The Chinese character representing "xiao" is used in expressions relating to ferocity & bravery.
In Poland it was believed that girls who died unmarried turned into doves, while those who died married turned into owls. It was also believed that owls did not come out during the day because they were so beautiful & would be mobbed by other birds out of jealousy.
In Russia, hunters used to carry owl claws, so that their souls could use them to climb to heaven when they died. The Kalmuks held owls sacred because one was believed to have saved the life of Genghis Khan.
In Welsh mythology, Blodeuwedd, the Goddess of Betrayal, is associated with the owl. According to the story in "The Mabinogion", Blodeuwedd was created from flowers by the magician Gwydion for the prince Llew Llaw Gyffes. She had an affair with Goronwy & they contrived to kill Llew. On his death, Llew was transformed into an eagle, but was healed & returned to human form by Gwydion. Llew returned to seek revenge, rather than killing Blodeuwedd, Gwydion turned her into a white owl, to haunt the night in loneliness & sorrow, saying "I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, you shall never show thy face in the light of day. And thou shall not lose thy name, but shall be always called Blodeuwedd." The word Blodeuwedd is still used in Wales to mean owl.
A Parliament of Owls
A Wisdom of Owls